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Word of the Week: Барак Обама [Barack Obama] Posted by on Nov 7, 2008 in Culture, language

While the world is still dizzy with joy and full of metaphysical expectations after Barack Obama won the elections in USA this Tuesday, my mind is, though not far from a cry of happiness, also filled with other reflections. One of these is how to deal with the new president’s name in Russian. With George Bush things were, surprisingly as it might sound, easier – Джорж Буш – and end of story.

But within Barack Obama’s name there is a strange task for the Russian system of cases – his first name is masculine, ending as it does on a consonant, while his last name is feminine, ending on the vowel a. In Russian thus Барак Обама. According to the rules of Russian grammar, we must decline his first name as a masculine noun, but his last name as a feminine one. This can and will surely mess with your mind in the way of «Дядя Ваня пришёл» [Uncle Vanja came] or «Врач Смирнова пришла» [Doctor Smirnova came] can and do. Such are the fine and finite rules of Russian grammar – here the ‘hidden sex’ of the words is what counts, not what letters the words actually end on. The problem that arises because of this does so not because we, ambitious yet simple mortal learners of Russian as a foreign language, are unintelligent and think that just because he’s uncle Vanja, then all the verbs connected with him should also end on -a, no! The problem is caused by our brain and its burning desire to make things make sense. And what makes sense to the brain in this case is to follow the rule as presented in the noun, masquerading itself as being feminine, and change all other words according to it – a little phenomenon called «согласование». The problem has the same ‘parents’ as the immediate impulse that makes us want to say «там были много людей» just because it feels right to say the verb in plural when talking about more than one person, forgetting all about the fact that a noun in genetive demands verbs in third person singular: «там было много людей» [many people were there].

So let’s take America’s new president on a virtual walk through all the Russian cases:

Nominative: «Барак Обама – президент Соединённых Штатов Америки» [Barack Obama is the president of the United States of America].

Accusative: «Я не голосовал за Барака Обаму» [I didn’t vote for Barack Obama].

Genetive: «Вы слушали последнюю речь Барака Обамы [Have you heard Barack Obama’s last speech?]

Dative: «Первое время Бараку Обаме будет тяжело» [The first time will be hard for Barack Obama].

Locative: «У меня нет мнения о Бараке Обаме» [I don’t have an opinion about Barack Obama].

Instrumental: «Я бы пошла на свидание с Бараком Обамой, но ведь знаешь, он женат!» [I would have gone on a date with Barack Obama, but you know, he’s married!]

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Comments:

  1. Josefina:

    Wait a minute – I’m confused about the stress in Barack’s first name in Russian. Perhaps it should fall not on the second a, but on the last letter when declining it? Any Russians out there who know for sure?

  2. Chuck E.:

    Why can’t Barak Obama’s name just be treated as a noun that isn’t declined – such as the Russian word for coffee?

  3. natasha:

    Josephina, you are right, the stress is on the second a. The name will decline just as the word “барак”

  4. Jen:

    coffee is actually masculin ^.^

  5. Jaime L:

    Hmmm I am wondering if one of these may not be a better translation:
    –дьявол
    –социалист
    –Маркс

    just suggestions

  6. natasha:

    Jaime, it is actually “Марксист”

  7. Clifford Walker:

    This is the first time I have read ‘Russian Blog’…it’s an excellent and entertaining way of understanding the rules and peculiarities of the language.

  8. stas:

    Excellent!.. Amazing!.. Entertaining!..

    However, I would like to point out to the use of commas in the «Я бы пошла на свидание с Бараком Обамой, но ведь знаешь, он женат!» [I would have gone on a date with Barack Obama, but you know, he’s married!] There should be another comma after ведь. English translation also lacks comma after but, however, English is not as strict about its commas as Russian, therefore this translation will be also correct without commas at all.

  9. Juhana kolmas:

    Hah, I noticed same thing about his name, and finally learnt those cases. Unfortunately single Barak Obama can’t teach me plurals in masculine and feminine.

  10. Eric & Regina D.:

    >> Wait a minute – I’m confused about the stress in Barack’s first name in Russian. Perhaps it should fall not on the second a, but on the last letter when declining it? Any Russians out there who know for sure?

    IMHO The emphasis should definitely fall on the second a.

    Cool article, by the way! Enjoyed as always!


    Regina

  11. жEлтЫйкOт:

    Тема старая конечно же, но прочитал с удовольствием 🙂